Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall was, maybe still is, the ancestral estate of the Seymours. Jane was Henry VIII’s third wife and the mother of Edward VI. She came in between the headless wives and contrary to popular myth, Henry did not routinely murder his wives. His first and third wives died of age and childbirth respectively. He’d divorced number one because he became convinced he’d sinned in marrying his brother’s widow, as she was, and that this was the cause of his son-less state. A hugely big deal in the Middle Ages. Well, let’s be real, being without sons is still considered tragic to lesser or greater degrees depending on where in the world you stand. He annulled his fourth marriage on grounds of ugliness and bad breath, and wife six survived him but only just. Wives two, five and six were adulterers to varying degrees with two and four losing their heads over it and six barely managing to outlive him before being arrested for treason herself. Wife two’s guilt isn’t proven but five and six were definitely involved with other men which given Henry’s reputation was just plain stupid.

Wolf Hall is mentioned infrequently in the novel of the same name by Hilary Mantel. In fact the Seymours only appear when the author wants to foreshadow or make a specific point about creeping evil. Jane Seymour’s father was a lecher who carried on with his daughter-in-law at one point and may have even fathered his own “grandchildren” on her. Jane herself is a quiet voice of practicality who is continually affirming Cromwell’s (the main character’s) information about the debauchery that goes on in her childhood home.

Wolf Hall represents the slip on the slope and it’s not until the end of the novel, after Thomas More’s head is piked on London Bridge that Cromwell heads off on his first visit to the Seymour’s. But an astounding amount of teetering on the top of the slope has taken place by this point and even if I didn’t know that Thomas Cromwell will lose his own head at a not to distant point in the future, I’d be able to guess it.

I love Tudor England. Sometimes I wonder if my affinity suggests that I lived a life or two there. There are only a few other time periods I am drawn to so perhaps.

It was not a simple or simple-minded time. Henry is neither monster nor misunderstood. Thomas More is no saint and Cromwell not as soulless as the history books would like us to believe.

History is suspect. It’s written by the winners and the vanquished never get to tell their side of the tale. Tales, being multi-sided like houses and books, should represent, don’t you agree?

Wolf Hall is a sumptuous read. It’s so hard to find decent fiction anymore that I am a bit sad when I finish. Thick text though so be aware that an audio version might be better. I found a delightful discussion about it at The Slate and will leave you with a pulp version of Tom and Henry.

He thought about her often. Time being so much on his hands to the point where he felt the urge to nudge it forward like an awkward child who shies back from a room of strangers. Though he hadn’t fallen so far that he lacked willing couriers, he solicited them only to send final missives to his sons. Notes which could cause no great harm if fallen into unfriendly hands for not even his enemies could begrudge a father his last words.

His tower cell looked over the deserted yard and out to the Thames where he tried vainly to drown her image. She’d married finally they told him. She was safe, he heard.

It was nearly two years since he last touched her. Soft and smelling of roses fresh from the markets of Calais. She’d found him, hiding in the dank corridors near chapel, crouched low, hands folded, thumbs indenting a time-worn brow.

“Time is past for prayers,” she said.

He didn’t look up but opened his eyes to the fullness of a sky blue skirt so close he had but to release his clasp and gather her to him like the air.

Once was a time he’d have slipped beneath the folds and run rough common hands up to delve royal treasures well-known. Instead, he reached out a tentative finger, briefly catching the pleated fabric between index and thumb before pulling back to monkish misery. She was beyond his knowing and they both realized it.

“It’s all I can do,” he replied.

He expected her to chide him over his failure of conscious, his weak-kneed capitulation, but she did not. Her grasp of the complicated was as grounded in survival as his own.

“She sends this,” and she dropped an English bible at his feet. It fell flat and hollow, the sound echoing down the drafty hall. “She faults herself only she says.”

“Kindness out of character for her, methinks.”

“Kindess is all the vengeance left to her.”

He looked up. Her pale moon shaped face pinched in places and tear swollen in others in comic effect that nearly cracked his own matching facade.

“I’d heard she’d turned over that leaf,” he said. “Perhaps she is not so shriven as she gives out?”

“Do not jest with me, Master,” her reply worn and thin. The last days have been long and though near over, she is spent like a farthing in the hands of beggar.

“I’ve missed our little assignations,” he countered in a dipolmatic tone that marked him courtier but with eyes that belied the disinterested tone.

“You’ve heard? You’re angry?”

“No,” he said. “How could I ever be made angry be the practical choice. Practicality is the foundation of my life. It is nearly my motto and I daresay will serve me as a fine epitaph.”

“Do you ever want, Tom*?”

He gathered a handful of her gown as she stepped nearer, her fingers playing tentatively through his salted locks.

“Modestly,” he admitted.

“Or wish?” tone more hopeful.

“Not at all,” regretting the cold water as soon as it tripped the tongue.

“Why breath?” she asked.

“Why indeed Mistress Mary,” he said. “Should you puzzle it out, share your revelation with me.”

“And more,” she agreed, slipping away from his grasp until only her shadow caressed his own with the whimsy of a ghost.

A stained wood block tore his gaze back from the water to the courtyard below. A beggar would find himself poorly mounted astride my wishes, he thought. Cold seeped into his forearms and up through his resting chin, chilling his memories as he noted the gathering crowd.

Grey, as though it knew her melancholy, the sky clung to its tears. It wept but a little for her sister as she recalled, stingy when it might downpour and damp the moment called for more.

She stood alone on the parapet. Hooded cloak concealing only so much of her identity as to not arouse suspicion. The times balanced precariously on princely whim and temper. In the yard, she noted the ugly mood and the grimly satisfied visages of the lords in attendance. Little did they know they disservice they did themselves this bleak morning.

He stumbled a bit as he made his way to the scaffold. She wondered that he wasn’t bound for humiliation’s sake. She hoped he would make a noble end without tears but knew that he would not. He left much behind and he was not such a man that his many regrets wouldn’t rise up to choke him at his end. He bent not a whit for his enemies, scowling and impatient for his end.

“I die a good true Catholic and his majesty’s most humble servant who I beg all to pray for so he should continue long and in health,” he spoke to the small crowd as if he were at Parliament, catching unwilling eyes and noting attendance though he did not glance up to see her.

Stepping to the block he knelt before it as if it were the altar and bowed his head to pray before gripping it either side with a soldier’s steeled nerve.

“I pray you all to learn from me,” he said. “Want modestly, but wish upon stars. Had I done this, a happier man I would have undoubtedly been.”

The blade landed to high to be true, the crack of skull followed shortly by a soft gurgle as the axe was lifted for a second stroke. She turned as his fingers clutched convulsively before going slack.

*I’ve been reading Hilary Mantel’s delightful Wolf Hall. I am a Tudor junkie and am well read on the time period, but Cromwell is more often than not a footnote or a very minor character. He is usually portrayed as a self-serving villain, but as the Tudors had a habit of rewriting history to suit their purposes, it’s hard to get an accurate picture of who he was and what might be true and what was merely invention by his enemies after the fact. Mantel’s novel is startling in its compassionate view of him and the hint of a romance between Cromwell and Mary Boleyn (Queen Anne’s older sister and mother of at least one of Henry the VIII’s bastards) caught my fancy though it would have been a very unlikely thing to have happened.

This is so not done. The roughest of drafts and I really envision it as short story that tells about their affair in flashback.